It was just two weeks before the September primary in the state’s third Congressional district, and the latest poll had Lori Trahan in fourth place.
That’s when Trahan poured hundreds of thousands of dollars of new money into her campaign, dramatically increasing her TV advertising from previous weeks. In the closing days of the race, she overtook her rivals, beating second-place finisher Dan Koh by just 145 votes, then going on to easily defeat the Republican candidate in November.
But where did the money for the 11th-hour advertising spree come from?
Trahan has offered vague and conflicting explanations, claiming she tapped personal funds to loan the campaign $371,000 in 2018. However, the financial disclosures Trahan filed during the summer show she didn’t have anywhere near enough money to cover such big loans — mainly, she listed a joint bank account with her husband containing less than $15,001.
After the November election, when the Globe began asking questions, she amended her financial reports four times, adding a joint bank account and a $71,000 home equity loan that she said she could draw on. Even then, however, the resources Trahan reported appear insufficient to make $371,000 in loans.
A campaign finance expert says Trahan’s explanations don’t add up. He believes that her campaign donations were improperly reported, and possibly illegally given to her by her husband, David Trahan, a successful home builder.
Federal election laws allow candidates to donate or loan their campaign any amount of money as long as it comes from a personal account or a legitimate bank loan. But if the money comes from anyone else — even a spouse — it is subject to the current contribution limit of $2,700, according to Federal Election Commission rules.
“The discrepancies between the supposed personal loans and her financial disclosures seem unlikely to have an innocent explanation,” said Adav Noti, a Washington, D.C.-based campaign finance expert, who reviewed her filings at the Globe’s request.
Trahan’s campaign spokeswoman denied any wrongdoing.
“We’ve complied fully with FEC and House requirements and have disclosed everything we’re required to disclose,” said Gretchen Grosky, the spokeswoman.
The Democrats Trahan defeated are reluctant to question the freshman representative, part of the “blue wave” that took back the House of Representatives from the Republicans this year. Koh and third-place finisher Barbara L’Italien declined to comment on Trahan’s surprise victory, while fifth-place finisher Rufus Gifford had only praise for Trahan.
“I will forever tip my hat to her for what was a hard-fought victory in a competitive and difficult race,” Gifford said.
But Robert Gray, a Republican media consultant who was not involved in the race, said Trahan may have to face difficult questions about how she financed her organization during the final days of the primary campaign.
“She’s realized the short-term benefit but may now have to deal with any long-term consequences stemming from campaign finance authorities looking at the loans to see if they were legal,” Gray said.
There’s little doubt that David Trahan has significant financial resources; Lori Trahan’s financial disclosures include many corporations under the control of her husband. However, the assets are listed as David Trahan’s alone and, therefore, not available to funnel into Lori Trahan’s campaign.
Trahan’s campaign wouldn’t say whether any money came from him. Trahan, who made transparency a central theme of her campaign, declined to be interviewed, answering questions about her campaign in writing.
Spokeswoman Grosky stressed that Trahan was a successful businesswoman who had her own resources to sink into the race. “While Lori grew up in a working-class family, she has enjoyed professional success that allowed her to support her own campaign,” explained Grosky.
The spokeswoman said the money Trahan loaned her campaign came from three sources: joint bank accounts with her husband, the home equity loan, and “additional income” from her consulting firm.
But Trahan did not appear to have $371,000 available from those sources to loan her campaign. In her amended financial disclosures, she reported two joint bank accounts with a combined maximum possible balance of $265,000 as well as $71,000 borrowed from her home equity line. Even if she gave all of it to her campaign, it’s still $35,000 less than the $371,000 she claims to have loaned herself.
She also reported in November that she had a checking account from her consulting company, called Concire. But her campaign spokeswoman said she used other accounts to fund the campaign, not the Concire account.
The lack of specifics about the loans from Trahan make it impossible to say exactly how much money came from which account, though a review of bank records would quickly reveal where the money came from. However, Trahan’s office declined to share bank records.
Trahan could also run afoul of the FEC for failing to fully disclose her financial assets in the campaign. Until December, Trahan did not report a joint bank account that she said had a balance of between $100,001 and $250,000 in 2018.
Trahan spokeswoman Grosky said Trahan did not initially list the account containing up to $250,000 on her financial disclosures because it did not generate $200 in interest income — a threshold under congressional ethics rules. Even if true, those rules require disclosure of any account with a balance of more than $5,000.
Noti, senior director with the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, said Trahan’s filings contain so many discrepancies that it’s impossible to determine where her funding came from.
“The whole reason we have campaign finance disclosure laws is that voters have a right to know who is financing a candidate’s campaign when they decide who they’re voting for,” Noti, a former FEC senior attorney, said.
Ironically, Trahan herself agrees with the need for more transparency in campaign finances. She made campaign finance reform a central theme of her campaign, declaring on her website that “big money and secret money in politics takes away the voices of working families.”
One thing is clear, however: Trahan’s campaign made extraordinary strides in the closing days of the primary campaign as she spent freely on television.
Less than two weeks before the Sept. 4 primary, Koh, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s former chief of staff, had 19 percent of the vote, according to a Globe poll, giving him a 6 point lead over both Gifford and L’Italien. Trahan was fourth with 8 percent. Six other candidates trailed further behind.
But Trahan’s ad blitz in the final days of August and early September fueled a late surge that helped turn the race around, analysts said. She was also endorsed by several newspapers, including the Globe.
“The polling revealed that even close to Election Day a large share — close to 30 percent — were undecided,” said John Cluverius, an assistant professor at University of Massachusetts Lowell, who thought her Lowell-centered ads were very effective.
“The ad campaign was oriented around showing voters she was like them,” said Cluverius. “The ad buy was enough to move undecided voters into her camp, especially in Lowell and Greater Lowell.”
The FEC, which can issue civil fines or refer cases to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution, takes seriously violations if they appear to be willful or if the illegal donations could have affected the outcome of the election, several experts said.
“It is more serious if it made the difference between winning and losing,” said Larry Noble, a former FEC general counsel.
Brett Kappel, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer who specializes in political law, said that if a candidate admits a violation by saying they didn’t understand the law, they often get “credit for coming forward. If the loans were illegal, you pay tens of thousands of dollars and promise not to do it again.”
But if there appears to be intent to shield the source of funds, “that’s the kind of case, if the FEC uncovered the evidence, they would refer it to the public integrity section of the Justice Department,” Kappel said.
Clarification: The original version of this story did not provide Representative Lori Trahan’s final margin of victory in the September 2018 primary. Trahan initially led her nearest rival by 122 votes, but the margin expanded to 145 votes after a recount.
Andrea Estes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.